Camping in Illinois Beach State Park.
[This piece also ran in Newcity magazine.]
There’s a bunch of state parks near Chicago accessible by commuter rail and/or bicycle including Indiana Dunes, Chain O’ Lakes and Kettle Moraine. But the easiest, oddest camping trip you can take without a car is a weekend excursion to Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, hometown of the band Local H, near the northeast corner of the state.
Strap your gear to your bike and catch Metra from the Ogilvie Transportation Center, 500 W. Madison, or points north. Alternately, you could bring a backpack and hike two miles from the Zion station to the campground, but a set of wheels is useful for sightseeing.
From the station, head 1.5 miles south for lunch at Captain Porky’s, 39210 Sheridan Rd in Zion, Illinois. This seafood and BBQ shack, decorated with a piggybank collection, plastic sharks and a taxidermied alligator head, specializes in cheap and yummy New Orleans-style grub like shrimp po’ boys, crawfish and jambalaya. “Eat here once and you’ll be back again,” says owner Dino Kallianis. Around the corner, Al’s Tap and Package Liquors, with it’s old-school neon sign, looks like good place to tie one on.
If you bicycled, head west from the Captain’s on Wadsworth Rd. six miles and a bit south to the Gold Pyramid House, 37921 Dilley’s Rd. in Wadsworth. Years ago, local construction mogul James Onan built this six-story home, a 1/100 model of the Great Pyramid of Egypt surrounded by a moat filled with sharks and jellyfish. It’s supposed to be the world largest 24-karat-gold-plated structure. A 200-ton, 40-foot statue of Ramses stands guard in front and the gates are decorated with busts of King Tut, hieroglyphics, sphinxes and sarcophagi.
Backtracking a mile east on Wadsworth takes you to a trailhead for the Des Plaines River bike path, which runs north/south through serene wetlands where you might spy a blue heron. Returning to Sheridan and Wadsworth, you’re at the entrance to the state park, so pitch your tent under a canopy of evergreens and take a walk on the shore. Though it’s a far cry from the splendor of the Indiana Dunes, Illinois Beach’s pebbly lakefront does offer plenty of flat rocks for skimming, creepy, boarded-up, ‘50s-era beach houses and a view of the defunct Zion Nuclear Power Plant.
In the morning, take a stroll or a spin along the park’s many rustic paths, where you’re likely to encounter extremely tame deer. At the north end of the park the North Point Marina, Illinois’ largest, is a good spot for a picnic.
Afterwards, stop by the Zion Historical Society at Shiloh House, 1300 Shiloh Blvd., 847-746-2427, for a tour of the lovely Victorian home of John Alexander Dowie who founded the city in 1901 as a headquarters for his sect, the Christian Catholic Church. The town’s origins as a theocracy are still evident from north-south streets with biblical names like Sheba, Horeb and Gideon.
The Santa Claus-like Dowie was a benign dictator, but his successor Wilbur Glenn Voliva was a harsh ruler, banning pork, shellfish, smoking, alcohol, movies, opera, doctors, tan shoes, high heels and globes, since he believed the earth is flat. When he died in 1942 the sect faded into obscurity, although its house of worship, now called Christ Community Church, is still located in the center of Shiloh Park, and some Zion old-timers still avoid pig.
Before you catch the train home, stop for Sunday dinner at the friendly Star Lite diner, 2325 N. Sheridan, a few blocks north of the station, to break bread with a cross-section of Zionites. The huge meatloaf platter is recommended, but Reverend Voliva is long gone so don’t be afraid to order the pork chops.
Frequent photo contributor Joshua Koonce took a similar trip to Zion in summer 2010.